Sunday, 22 January 2023, Sushana River cabin
MORNING. Amazing what a day of fresh air and continuous exercise will do for a body. At home, I generally sleep six hours a night; last night, I succumbed to dreams for eight hours.
Of course, I had no reason (other than an insistent bladder) to arise. Dawn - or any semblance of it - would not appear for hours. A temperature of -30°F
doesn't encourage exploration. The forecast called for a high of -8° today! Woo hoo! (Actually, the temperature still hung at -30° by the time we returned to the cabin.) At least we won't have anywhere near yesterday's mileage on today's run.
And I logged my first Alaskan wildlife sighting - there's a housefly hanging out on the breakfast table! The official explanation: in late summer, they will find cracks in the wood beams and burrow in them to hibernate. Once the cabin warms up, they wake up and gravitate toward the lamp.
Once the light grew, we ventured out and got ready for the day. The snow crunched in the cold air.
MID-DAY. No hint of cockiness today. Despite lessons learned and experiences gained yesterday, I still questioned my ability at the start. [I didn't realize I had signed up for the graduate-level course in dogsledding!] Once the sled started moving, though, my new-found instincts kicked in. I found myself working through several near-falls, correcting the sled each time.
At the sharp uphills climbing from the river -- 10-15 yards of inclines steeper than 45° -- I would step off the sled, push from below as the dogs struggled, then quickly leap back on the runners when it cleared the top. The worst pitches came only two minutes from the cabin. By the time we cleared them, sweat was dripping from underneath my snow suit. (On one of these climbs, JJ confided that it took him half an hour recently to get a fully-loaded sled up them. He'd push it up a couple of inches, jam on the brake to keep from sliding back, and let the dogs rest for a minute. Lather, rinse, repeat.)
A few lacy, low-hanging clouds hung in the sky to our left, and the sun cast an Alpenglow over the land. We began by running thru copses of trees. One spot, dubbed the Tree Tunnel, featured three or four overhanging limbs about 4' above the ground. I managed to duck under the first few while keeping the sled on course, but the final one led to the day's first fall. To my credit, I aced the tunnel when we returned - a huge confidence-builder.
Once we cleared the trees, we entered a vast, treeless plateau covered in white.
(Another frozen lake?) To the north, low clouds filled an immense valley, likely filled with cold air. To the south, the clouds glowed blue from the sun, and Denali loomed in the distance.
[Denali can be seen just to the right of the mountain outcropping, from 0:10 to 0:20 of the video.] The trail piercing into the park had disappeared under the previous day's snow, or had been scraped off by the wind. JJ's team had the onerous task of breaking through the drifts.
We'd gone less than three miles, the dogs straining the whole way, with no definitive sign of where the trail had been.
"Hmm... maybe toward that bush on the horizon..." Finally JJ called an end, and we headed back on the trail we'd just cut. JJ carved a wide turn, but my dogs cut across the curve as a short cut, and ended up behind my sled.
JJ had to straighten things out.
When we neared the cabin, we stopped just above those steep uphills. I'd mentioned earlier that at least I knew where I'd make my last wipeout. "If you'd like," JJ offered, "I could take the team down and you could walk down."
"Hey, everyone knows I'm a crazy man. I'm not about to miss this chance to prove it!"
To make it easier on me - to keep my team from flying down the trail - he unhooked three of my dogs. "With only three on your team, you'll have a better chance of staying on the sled, standing on the bar brake."
"Since this is my last hurrah," I said, "I may as well commit it to film. Let me turn on my GoPro..."
EVENING. For dinner, JJ treated me to Indian curry over rice. Later, I wandered out to check the temperature and see if the Northern Lights would grace us with a show. (No, they wouldn't.) Despite the clear skies above, tiny crystals of snow floated in the air, twinking in the beam of my headlight. "We call that 'diamond dust'," JJ explained when I went back inside. The name fits!
At 10:00, the dogs sounded an alarm. JJ suited up to check out the commotion, and gave me a report: "There's a moose passing through the woods, about a hundred yards away. I couldn't really see it, but I could see its eyes shining in the beam of my headlight, and made out the hulking body in the gloom."
Interview Part III: meet the guide... (here, preparing to chop us some drinking water)
What do you do during the summer? I'm a carpenter for the park service, working on special projects. In earlier years I drove the [Denali] park bus, and may try to do that again.
What initially drew you to dogsledding? Growing up, I was fascinated by Gary Paulsen. For me, his books kindled a love for survival and the outdoors. I also read Jack London's book, Call Of the Wild. And Krakauer's Into the Wild. I've always been interested in Alaska and wildlife. [Later, I mentioned that I was reading 'Arctic Dreams'. "Oh, the Barry Lopez book! That's a great read."]
When did you decide that dogsledding was the life for you? I set my goal of working with sled dogs before I even reached high school, with no idea whether I could achieve it. I came up to Alaska in 2003, and started by driving a tour bus in Denali NP. I spent my first winter here in 2009, and soon got my first dog.
Can you mention a memorable event or situation from the time you've spent up here? I'd say finding out how beautiful it is up here during the summer, and sharing it with friends. It's so much more than just a big mountain! I remember the first time I hiked to the cabin - I couldn't believe how green it was!